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Reclaiming Streets for People

Posted on 7 May 2020

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

The city of Milan recently announced that they are radically rethinking how movement around their city centre will work in the future. With motor congestion down 30-75% during lockdown, and a notable associated decrease in air pollution (1), they can clearly see the impact that reducing vehicular access to some sections of the city might have on air quality in their city in the future. The city has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted (2).

Image from RTE media

With figures emerging from the worst-hit areas of the pandemic, other cities are starting to take notice of the links between air quality and the vulnerability of citizens in the most polluted cities. Research analysis from 66 different administrative regions in France, Italy Spain and Germany has shown that 78% of Covid-related deaths have occurred in just five of these regions, and that these are also the most polluted (3). While we obviously also have to take population density into account, the figures raise new alarm bells for public health.

Graphic from The Guardian (4)

While in many ways, this link is not news to any of us, the Covid pandemic has provided an unprecedented and stark contrast between air quality during life and business as usual and life under lockdown. Research by the University of York reveals that air pollution has dropped by more than 40% in a number of  UK cities during this period of lockdown (5). The pandemic has been a global experiment in the reduction of vehicle use, which offers us new incentives and ammunition in placemaking terms.

Images have flooded the internet showing our ghost towns. The Rolling Stones even have a new song and video, Living in a Ghost Town, out showing empty streets around the world. While it is strange and eerie to see these familiar places with no people in them, many of us have also been struck by the beauty of our city-scapes free of the usual cars and traffic. 


So how can we use this pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine our cities with less traffic and pollution, and ensure ground is not lost when lockdown lifts? How can we shift culture, policy and practice to support putting people before cars in our streetscapes and public realm? Milan is taking bold steps at a local government level, but it will require people to also adapt how they live, work and play; take advantage of those new spaces and interact with others differently. It will take all of us asking ourselves if we have to take the car, and our transport systems making it easy not to. 

Above all, significant change will require all of us to think outside our usual boxes and imagine, “What if…?”. We will need to think aspirationally about what is possible rather than be limited by how things work now, and to figure out how to make change happen. We know there are both great precedents and ideas out there for how to do this. In our recent Glass-House event series Reconfiguring Place, groups of participants co-designed ideas for places that encourage and support connections between people, that shift power balances and that offer more diverse and sustainable environments. Many of these had to do with reimagining our streets and public realm placing people above cars. All of them required us to think and behave a little differently, and to shape policies to enable us to work differently together to both shape and enjoy our shared spaces. You can have a look at these ideas in our Reconfiguring Place series summary.

So this is a call-out to all of us. Let’s use this pandemic as a catalyst for a positive shift in the balance between vehicles and people, and how our streets and public spaces serve both. If you have any ideas on this, or other shifts to how we shape our places, we would love to hear them. 

Our event series for 2020/21 PLACE: What’s Vital Now? will start with a series of think pieces by guest authors sharing their ideas. Find out more about how you can contribute here.  

 1. Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown. Laura Laker, The Guardian, 21 April 2020   
2.  Ibid
3. Air pollution may be ‘key contributor’ to Covid-19 deaths – study. Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 20 April 2020 
4. The traffic data that shows the road into – and out of – Covid-19 lockdown. Sean Clarke, The Guardian, 27 April 2020
5. Coronavirus: Reductions in air pollution during lockdown could lead to warmer weather, experts say. Conrad Duncan, The Independent, 25 April 2020